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Criticism, Ideas and the Maya example

January 21, 2012 - 18:06 -- Ricardo Ataide

Platforms like MalariaWorld and so many others offer us the possibility of accessing freely information on malaria research and, importantly, offer us the possibility of engaging in public, healthy, constructive discussions on what we read. In some cases, we can actually have the ‘crème de la crème’ of the respective fields there, at our fingertips, to answer our doubts, our questions and sometimes, why not, our criticism.


Unfortunately we don’t do it. Very rarely have I seen any discussion on a particular paper that was published. I understand why I don’t do it myself. (Oh yes, I’m not claiming to be above anyone in this. I, myself, am one of the guilty ones). It is a mix of “what if I am wrong” with “What if they get upset and I later want to collaborate with them or with someone that knows them” and with “if I’m the only one doing it it’ll be awkward” (and yes, I am the first to agree that these are fairly ridiculous reasons...). I don’t know your reasons for it, but surely you must have them. Apart from a few very interesting discussions by a few selected members of this community, no real challenging thoughts and constructive criticism can be detected when browsing the dozens of papers presented to us weekly and the comments section always shows a zero (a recent exception could be the question posed by Professor Grau when confronted with a paper reviewing serological markers of cerebral malaria).

The reality of it is that for whatever reasons that can be more or less valid we don’t really engage in discussing our research.  Someone told me that the major reason behind this behaviour might be a lack of will to share your “better” ideas with someone that might then use them. Now, how do we solve that? I don’t know...


Nevertheless, one of the things I propose we could do would be to allow the MalariaWorld team to put our research papers up for discussion when we publish them. The MalariaWorld team could create a specific area in the website, accessible only to those of us who have logged in, where for a certain period of time the paper could be reviewed by the MalariaWorld community. During that time we would be encouraged to extend our congratulations, doubts, questions on particular methodologies, concerns about results or conclusions and have the insight of the entire community to answer us. Since the authors of the papers would be the ones giving the approval for the papers to be put up for review I believe that the problems of offending anyone with our reviews would be avoided.  Now I know that some of you do it by going directly to the source and emailing the authors, but why not use the collective knowledge of this community?


Being an avid amateur-Mayanist I see every day how that community in particular is able to discuss ideas publicly on the internet and challenge each other’s views without egos being crushed (for an example, though it may be boring to most of you, see how the comments to this blog post by one of the leading experts of his field, Dr David Stuart, is challenged and he admits he might be wrong:


It is just an idea...



Bart G.J. Knols's picture
Submitted by Bart G.J. Knols on

Dear Ricardo,

Congratulations with an excellent piece of food for thought. I like it very much, more so now that it is not just us at MalariaWorld that are wondering why there is not enough engagement from the community, but people like you. You give two possible reasons:

- People are afraid to make wrong (or even silly) statements in front of the community;
- People fear the ramifications of their statements regarding other's work;

I fear that there may be other reasons why subscribers don't engage - beyond the two you described:

- People don't care to engage once their papers are published;
- Publications are seen as endpoints, even though they should be seen as starting points (for discussion).

Although we appreciate your suggestion, we are seeing the complete openness of the platform as one of our major strengths. Unfortunately the malaria field remains highly competitive, with too much at stake for many to let go of their ideas and thoughts. This is a real shame, but as time passes, we hope that the platform contributes to creating more openness.

Anybody else with ideas why people don't engage in discussions, commenting, etc.?

Submitted by Ricardo Ataide on

Hi Bart,

You wrote something that is certainly true. Publications are seen as endpoints. It is a shame, really, and I for one cannot see a way of turning that around. Reviewers should be only the first participants in discussing a paper. I personally love it when my papers are mentioned or when someone writes to me and tells me that they need some explaining on this or that aspect of my work. By doing that I've become a better scientist and more conscious of aspects that I need to improve in the way I look at my work.

What is more surprising to me is that, in the labs where I've had the pleasure of working we were always encouraged to be critical of our work, of other people's work and to leave no questions lingering in our mind. If it is troubling us we should ask! If we know how to solve it we should say it! Now, I believe this is also the attitude that other people in other labs have. So the reason why that doesn't translate into a more engaging community of scientists is a mystery.

Ricardo Ataíde

Submitted by Tom Olijhoek on

Dear Ricardo,
like Bart I have read your blog with much admiration. Although we would probably all like to see Malariaworld as a platform where we can share our thoughts, its main use is to function as a practical means to keep up with the newest research. This is the difference between active engagement and passive consumption. We all have learned to be consumers and it is difficult to give (your thoughts, your opinions etc) for all the reasons that you list. One of the reasons you give "might be a lack of will to share your “better” ideas with someone that might then use them". Bart comments that this is a problem that will not easily be solved because of the competiveness of malaria research and of science in general. I agree, but I also think that we focus too much on things we might loose and loose sight of the advantages of sharing our precious thoughts openly. I think that by communicating our ideas openly we can improve on our ideas, and as long as this is done openly there is no real risk that others take the credit for our ideas. This pre-supposes a Community of people who trust each orher out of experience in dealing with each other.
Your idea of opening up a special section of Malariaworld for community building is a good one. In parallel or alternatively we (malariaresearchers) could start using a social media platform like ResearchGate ( where already over 1 million scientists share their papers and ideas on line.

Submitted by Miles Markus on

Tom wrote in regard to what Ricardo posted: "I think that by communicating our ideas openly ... there is no real risk that others take the credit for our ideas". Yes, if only because some of their peers (who will not be fooled easily) will be well aware of where the ideas came from. That aside, the risk is that if "they" are unethical enough not to give credit, not having done so in a publication(s) could eventually come back to bite them, one way or another. The reverse is also true. Reputations can be enhanced via ethical behaviour in this context. Some examples come to mind.